Christina Stead, How to Write a Novel

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Christina Stead (1902-1983) is one of our greatest writers, so her thoughts on the process of writing a novel are of some significance. Neither I, in my review of Chris Williams’ A Life of Letters, nor Lisa (ANZLL) in her review of Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead, A Biography, picked up that in her time in New York in the 1940s Stead taught an extramural course called ‘Workshop in the Novel’ at NYU, in ’43/44 and again in ’46.

I discovered this, in an essay by Dr Susan Lever: Christina Stead’s Workshop in the Novel: How to Write a “Novel of Strife”, and some other stuff which I have provided links to below, while waiting for a load in Sydney, and idly looking around for references to Stead’s (adverse) review of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (1957) published in Friendship, the journal of the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society (from what I can gather from Trove, it is yet to be digitised).

The title references Stead’s speech to the American Writers’ Congress in June 1939, entitled “Uses of the Many-Charactered Novel”, ‘where she argues for a “novel of strife” that offers multiple viewpoints rather than a thesis, leaving readers to make their own conclusions.’

These two instances, the workshops and the speech, are just one indicator of how much we lost by Stead’s decision to live overseas and our failure to embrace her as an Australian writer until well into the 1960s.

From what I could gather in preparation for this post, Hazel Rowley characterizes Stead as grumpy, alienated from friends and acquaintances after using them in novels, and as communist only in deference to her husband, Bill Blake. Yet my reading, both of Williams’ biography and of Stead’s novels, is that Stead was a lively, sexy woman, thoughtful about communism and able to transcend the limitations of socialist realism in her writing as Katharine Sussanah Prichard for instance was not.

Stead did not write many reviews and in those she did, she was mostly interested in the craft of writing. In a letter to a friend, she writes of Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves that “He is a devoted noble soul, etc. but he is trying to spread altar-juice all over Australia’s dark and bloody history”. Rowley writes that this is just the sort of approach that maddened all Stead’s friends, but Lever points out, “it is surely more interesting as an indication of Stead’s way of reading… . We can see it as evidence of Stead’s continued interest in history as shifting forces of power, so that, even in such a throwaway comment, Stead, the Marxist, sought a political reading of the historical background to White’s novel.”

Lever in her essay, with ‘several ring-bound notebooks’ of course notes at her disposal, is able to discuss in detail how Stead relied on real life for her material, and how her genuine commitment to communism came out in her writing.

Stead’s course consisted of 12 classes with headings as you’d expect: Choice of Subject; Making a Start; Kinds of Novels; Characters; Composition …. Unfortunately her notes for the tenth class, Novel of Social Criticism, Political Novel… are missing. Stead bases her teaching on her own by then considerable experience, and on books by communists Ralph Fox (her former lover who died in Spain) and Mike Gold.

In the first class Stead planned to talk to her students about the impulse to write, suggesting that “to express something” was not enough, but that writing needed “to combat something”, as well as “to shape something” and “to express self and others.”

Stead adds that the combination of revolt and the writer’s “interpretation of life” “always end in creation – but first is necessary an analysis of the problem that first attracted attention, of your own small society, and even of yourself in relation to that society.”

For her second class, Stead compiled a list of novels that she thought her students should have read. It is firmly based on the European naturalist tradition of the nineteenth century, including Zola, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust and Hardy… While she does not include Jake Home, a novel she admired by Ruth McKenny (the model for Emily Wilkes in I’m Dying Laughing) she does reference it in the course notes as an example of the powerful use of direct political material. A second list of books about the problems of women’s lives – possibly added because several students as well as the teacher were writing on this topic – shows how European Stead’s literary reading (often in the original French) had been … Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Marie Bashkirtseff and the Goncourt brothers.

Last quote, this time from Stead herself:

A writer will perhaps wish to use his talent to put forward in acceptable form his social or religious beliefs. This is also good form or organization for he he has then only to go to his own people to get his characters …

No, I have to go on. With the next couple of quotes we get to the crux of Stead drawing from life:

A golden rule: always draw from a model: keep sketches, keep notes mental or otherwise of people who will serve as models. Do not be ashamed to ring up a model, you can tell him (or not) as you please … If you are “haunted” by a certain person, use that person [Stead, notes for class on Character]

Stead’s consistent use of her friends as the source of her characters meant that she lost some of them, and she has been portrayed as an angry and even vindictive person in biographies. Yet this kind of advice suggests that she might be better seen as an artist who worked from life as a conscious method, even though that might mean the sacrifice of life for art. [Lever]

There’s much more in the essay, about Stead’s nuanced position on the ‘proletarian novel’ of the 1930s; about her position on women and how she addressed it around this time in For Love Alone and Letty Fox; about how she used her novels to critique individual communists; and her characters and who they were modelled on.

There you are – we can all be marxist writers now. How I wish I could have attended the course. Or that Stead had returned to Australia earlier and taken up a teaching position here as any number of writers do today.

 

Susan Lever, Christina Stead’s Workshop in the Novel: How to Write a “Novel of Strife” (not dated that I could see) here

For links to all reviews, start at ANZLitLovers ‘Christina Stead’ page, here

A Sydney Morning Herald article (3 Sept 2002) a new trove of Stead letters, here

Hilary McPhee, Introduction to Talking into the Typewriter (vol. 2 of Stead’s letters), Melbourne University Press, 1992, here

Mike Gold, Why I am a Communist, New Masses, Sept 1932, here

 

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